The business of death: 5 tips for wills and estate planning

My father died suddenly and very unexpectedly just over four months ago.

In the sleep-deprived, grief and shock-laden days that followed, one friend (who had lost her mother) told me: “Prepare yourself, the ‘business of death’ is even worse than the death itself.”

Me and my dad.

Those words stuck with me then, and 17 weeks later, I know what she means.

Grieving I can handle. Sort of.

Funeral expenses.

Credit card debts.

Taxes.

Inability to access bank and brokerage accounts.

Death is an ugly, messy business.

Here are some ways you can ease the burden your family will face after you’re gone.

Write down your account login information

Most Americans today are walking encyclopedias of online bank accounts, credit card logins and odd passwords based on weird sequences of letters and digits and special characters.

If you were to suddenly be swept from this Earth, does anyone but you know how to access them?

Does your family even know what accounts you have open? Where to find your W-2 or your mortgage statement?

My tip: Prepare a detailed document that lists your Social Security number, all your accounts, usernames and logins. Keep it in a safe or a safety deposit box and let someone in your family know how to access it.

Have a living will and a will

This seems obvious, but a recent survey found nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t have these critical documents.

My dad did, but they weren’t exactly detailed, and we didn’t immediately know where to find them. Make sure you spell out very clearly your wishes and beneficiaries and update them regularly as your family/circumstances change. Have it witnessed by someone who is not eligible to inherit anything.

My tip: If you aren’t sure where to start, check out agingwithdignity.com. It has a “Five Wishes” document, accepted in most U.S. states, that will help you spell out what you want (and in plain English.)

The AARP — American Association of Retired Persons — also has a wealth of information on its website. And you don’t need a lawyer to draft a will these days. In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of online software that allows you to do it yourself, at a reasonable cost.

Pre-plan your funeral arrangements

It’s morbid. I get it.

No one wants to think that they aren’t going to be around for decades to come, but let me tell you: the only constants in life are death and taxes.

And when you die, it seems that everyone has their hand out.

Cremation, burial, embalming, caskets, urns, burial plots, death certificates, services, flowers, the church. If you want to say goodbye to someone publicly, you typically have to pay a ton of people to do it.

Parting.com estimates that most families will pay close to $10,000 in funeral expenses.

My tip: Ease the burden by selecting a funeral home and pre-paying some of those expenses or setting aside money in your accounts for them. And leave detailed instructions about what you want.

Be clear about your credit cards and debt

A report issued in December 2016 found that the average American household now carries more than $16,000 in credit card debt.

Will your spouse be legally required to pay your debts after you die? It’s not a clear-cut answer, but in most states, the spouse is on the hook if the cards were taken out jointly (both parties signed the application), but not if the spouse was merely an authorized user.

This becomes trickier in community property states, where both spouses may be liable for any debts incurred during the course of the marriage. Community property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Washington.

My tip: No matter what your situation, rest assured: Credit card companies will start calling at all hours of the day and night to collect payment after you die. They literally do not care if your family is shell-shocked and grieving.

So make sure you and your spouse know exactly what’s out there and in which name.

Get more life insurance

LifeHappens.org, a non-profit founded by seven leading insurance companies, says that one in three families would struggle financially if the primary wage earner in the household were to pass away.

And while recent reports have found that 44 percent of Americans do have SOME life insurance, nearly half of U.S. families don’t have enough to adequately provide for their loved ones.

My tip: How much do you need? It varies based on a variety of factors, including annual income, number of dependents, lifestyle. But industry standard is seven to 10 times your annual salary.

The median income in the U.S. is about $56,000. So that would equal between $392,000 and $560,000 in life insurance.

One final piece of advice for surviving family members: Print out this handy checklist. From the National Funeral Directors Association, it gives you a quick list of government agencies and financial institutions that you should notify when an immediate member of the family passes away — an important step in preventing identity theft and fraud.

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